Tag Archives: Armie Hammer

Murder Was Again the Case

Death on the Nile

by George Wolf

“He accuses everyone of murder!”

“It is a problem, I admit.”

This playful admission by legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is one of the ways Death on the Nile has some winking fun with the often used, often parodied Agatha Christie formula.

And since Christie’s source novel is one of the works that perfected that formula, it’s smart to acknowledge some inherent campiness while you’re trying to honor the genius of the original construction.

After his successful revival of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, Branagh is back to again star, direct, and team with screenwriter Michael Green for another star-studded, claustrophobic whodunit.

This time we’re aboard a lavish cruise down the Nile in the late 1930s. Wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) has just married the dashing Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), and they’ve invited a group of friends and family (including Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright and no-that’s-not-Margot- Robbie-it’s Emma Mackey) to help them celebrate.

Ah, but love and money bring “conflicting lies and jealousies,” and soon Linnet proves wise in putting the world’s greatest detective on the guest list. Murder is again the case!

And when Hercule Poirot is on it – which takes a while – Branagh and Green craft a capable reminder of what makes this formula so sturdy. From the discovery of clues to the requisite red-herring accusations, it’s just fun to feel part of Poirot’s deductive process.

But while Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos expertly utilize the confines of the ship to their advantage, the surrounding locales smack of outdated CGI and land as a disappointing stand-in for the eye-popping wonder of Orient Express.

Branagh and Green also try valiantly to weave a layer of love through the mystery. Opening with a prologue that introduces a decades-old pining (along with Poirot’s keen eye for detail and a dubious inspiration for that mustache), the film’s ambitions for this added narrative weight are worthy, but ultimately add more running time than substance.

The epilogue that checks in with Poirot six months after the cruise lets us know Branagh may have more Christie mysteries on his itinerary, and that’s not a bad thing. Death on the Nile proves that a trusty return to glamour and intrigue can still overcome some excess baggage.

Mrs. Mystery


by George Wolf

Let’s give credit where it’s due. Remaking a Hitchcock classic takes some stones. Beyond putting aside the inevitable comparisons, you’ve got to find a way to follow your own vision while honoring the elements that make the film worth revisiting.

A look at Ben Wheatley’s resume (Kill List, A Field in England, Sightseers, High Rise, Free Fire) suggests the promise of edge and/or sly wit. But Wheatley’s update of Hitch’s 1940 gothic potboiler Rebecca can never quite fulfill that promise.

Things start well enough. Armie Hammer cuts a detached and dashing figure as wealthy heir Maxim de Winter. Surrounded by luxury on a Monte Carlo holiday in the late 1930s, he still struggles to recover from the sudden death of his wife, Rebecca.

Max’s mood improves when he meets a young ladies’ maid (Lily James), who must sneak away from her employer Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) each time Max sends handwritten invitations for increasingly intimate meetups.

The whirlwind courtship leads to an impulsive marriage, with Max taking the new Mrs. de Winter back to Manderlay, his family’s sprawling estate on the windswept English coast.

The new bride’s welcome, led by Manderlay’s imposing head servant Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott-Thomas, icy perfection), is less than warm.

The memory of Rebecca permeates the house and haunts the new wife. But even as she struggles to compete with the ghost of a seemingly perfect woman, the second Mrs. de Winter is drawn into a growing mystery of what really happened to the first.

James is a natural at delivering the innocence and naïveté of the never-named proletarian suddenly thrust into aristocracy. Likewise, Hammer’s chisled handsomeness and graceful manner make Max’s required mix of societal etiquette and subtle condescension instantly identifiable.

But their character arcs – like much of Rebecca‘s stylish narrative – begin to crumble with each new breadcrumb. Wheatley, going bigger than ever with a veteran writing trio’s new adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s celebrated novel, checks off the revelations in a workmanlike succession that’s almost completely devoid of the suspense and sexual anxiety that propel the original film.

So when the seismic power shift strikes the de Winter’s marriage, it lands as a turn less earned and more like a matter of melodramatic convenience.

It’s all perfectly grand and respectable, but never memorable. And by the time Wheatley’s final shot suggests a haphazard attempt to re-frame all of it, this Rebecca, like the young Mrs. de Winter, has a tough time measuring up.

Survival Instinct

Hotel Mumbai

by Brandon Thomas

On November 26, 2008, 10 Pakistani terrorists launched a coordinated attack in the Indian city of Mumbai. At least 174 people were killed, with thirty-one dying inside of the Taj Hotel where the initial attack turned into a four-day siege.

In the modern era, terrorism has become an ever-present part of our lives. Cinema’s response has been to turn these perpetrators into moustache-twirling villains with a penchant for money more than ideology. Only in the wake of 9/11 did filmmakers routinely start to tackle terrorism with gravitas. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Steven Spielberg’s Munich were two of the first films in this wave to treat terrorism in film as something more than an excuse to blow something up. Hotel Mumbai’s terrifying journey into the 2008 attacks places it firmly alongside these latter day efforts.

Hotel Mumbai follows a handful of guests (Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi) and hotel staff (Dev Patel and Anupam Kher) as they struggle to survive the armed assault by four gunmen. As the ordeal continues and family and friends are separated from one another, the surviving hotel employees band together to help keep the guests as safe as humanly possible.

The tension flowing through every second of Hotel Mumbai is palpable. When the violence begins, it’s shocking and matter-of-fact in its ferocity. Director Anthony Maras wisely keeps the action grounded, using a lot of hand-held camerawork to create a chaotic feel. There’s an eerie sense of normalcy to what’s happening that gets under your skin.

Speaking of normalcy, making the heroes of Hotel Mumbai the hotel guests, waiters and kitchen staff only adds to that sense of realism. We’ve already seen the version of this movie where the star is a cop or an elite team of commandos. Watching the hotel staff work together to usher the remaining guests to safety adds an emotional element that would be missing if this was simply an “action movie.”

Patel leads the pack with a riveting performance that isn’t showy or recycled. His character of Arjun is in complete contrast to the men terrorizing the hotel, his sense of honor and purpose driven by saving people.

Hotel Mumbai offers an unflinching look at the horror of terrorism. Thankfully, it also shows us that true heroism can exist even in the darkest of moments.



Feel the Burn

Sorry to Bother You

by Hope Madden

The stars are aligning for Boots Riley. The vocalist and songwriter for The Coup—the funkiest radical socialist band you’re likely to find—has managed to produce a wild and relevant satire of capitalism that might possibly find a mainstream audience.

And that’s not because he whitewashed his message.

Sorry to Bother You uses splashes of absurdity and surrealism to enliven the first act “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tale of a weary young man’s ascension through the ranks of telemarketing. It is a funny and pointed send-up of cubical hell that—unlike most office comedies—focuses quickly on a system that benefits very few while it exploits very many.

There is so much untidiness and depth to relationships, characterizations, comedy, horror, style, message and execution of this film that you could overlook Riley’s directorial approach. He expertly uses the havoc and excess, first lulling you into familiar territory before upending all expectations and taking you on one headtrip of an indictment of capitalism.

Led by Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) and Tessa Thompson (star of Creed, Thor: Ragnarock and her own gleaming awesomeness), Sorry to Bother You finds an emotional center that sets the friction between community and individual on understandable ground.

Thompson offers bursts of energy that nicely offset Stanfield’s slower, more necessarily muddled performance as the “everyman” central character for a new generation.

And who better to embody everything a capitalist system convinces you is ideal than living Ken doll Armie Hammer? He is perfect—an actor who entirely comprehends his physical perfection and how loathsome it can be. He is a hoot.

Riley’s film could not be more timely. Though he wrote it nearly a dozen years ago, and it certainly reflects a trajectory our nation has been on for eons, it feels so of-the-moment you expect to see a baby Trump balloon floating above the labor union picket line.

Bursting with thoughts, images and ideas, the film never feels like it wanders into tangents. Instead, Riley’s alarmingly relevant directorial debut creates a new cinematic form to accommodate its abundance of insight and number of comments.

Does it careen off the rails by Act 3? Oh, yes, and gloriously so. A tidy or in any way predictable conclusion would have been a far greater disaster, though. Riley set us on a course that dismantles the structure we’ve grown used to as moviegoers and we may not be ready for what that kind of change means for us. Isn’t it about goddamn time?

Sowing the Seeds of Love

Call Me by Your Name

by Hope Madden

It’s a languid Italian summer circa 1983 and everything is just so ripe.

Call Me by Your Name, the coming-of-age drama from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), swoons. Precocious seventeen-year-old Elio (an utterly astonishing Timothée Chalamet) is surrounded with luscious fruit from the trees, lovely girls from the village, books and music to fill the hours spent with his parents (Amira Casar, Michael Stuhlbarg) in the rural villa where they research Greco-Roman culture.

Then their seasonal research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives.

Awash in sensuality, Guadagnino’s love story is unafraid to explore, circling Oliver and Elio as they irritate each other, then test each other, and finally submit to and fully embrace their feelings for one another. Theirs is a remarkable dance, intimately told and flawlessly performed.

Enough cannot be said for Chalamet’s work. He is astonishingly in control of this character, and were that not the case, the age difference between the two characters (Oliver is meant to be 24, though Hammer is 31 which makes the gap seem more disturbing) would have left things feeling too predatory.

Hammer has never been better. Though the young Chalamet’s performance is Oscar-caliber, Hammer matches him step for step, creating a character both vulnerable and authoritative.

A standout in a solid ensemble, Stuhlbarg, looking almost alarmingly like Robin Williams, brings a quiet tenderness to the proceedings, a tone he elevates in a late-film monologue that could not have been delivered with more compassion or love. It’s breathtaking, perfectly punctuating the themes of acceptance and self-acceptance that permeate the film.

But even before Hammer or Chalamet can seduce you, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom does, lensing a feast for the senses. Together he and Guadagnino immerse you in this heady love story, developing a dreamy cadence and alluring palette that invites you to taste.


Back to the Track

Cars 3

by George Wolf

As great as the Disney/Pixar lineup is -and it’s pretty great- the Cars franchise sits low in the batting order, especially after the debacle that was Cars 2 six years ago. Cars 3 rebounds nicely, but still can’t match the meaningful substance of Pixar’s best.

We catch up with legendary race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) in a changing sports world. Suddenly, a new generation of “NextGen” cars, led by rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is taking over. New team owner Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion) brings in a young trainer named Cruz (Cristela Alonzo) to get McQueen adapted to the new technology, but her “senior project” only fuels the feeling that the legend should stay in the garage for good.

Animation vet Brian Fee helms his first feature as director/co-writer with Cars 3, and while the visual style is characteristically luscious, the story that he’s telling never quite rises above the pleasantries of showing kids some talking cars and introducing a new line of tie-in merchandise.

The gags are amusing but seldom funny and the plot takes some turns that may confuse the young ones, but the bigger concern is what’s missing.

As Cruz reveals her true love is not training but racing, and McQueen reflects on his tutelage under Doc (Paul Newman), the movie has the chance to find the poignancy and resonance that has driven Pixar’s most touching classics.

You’ll find it in Lou, the Pixar short the runs before the feature.

Alas, Cars 3 drives on by, satisfied with “believe in yourself” mantras that are greeting card ready, and a first-place trophy for the cheerfully harmless.




Free for All

Free Fire

by Hope Madden

The first notes I took, about ten minutes into the screening for Ben Wheatley’s latest Free Fire, read like so: This is a ballsy first act.

Indeed. Co-written with his wife and frequent collaborator Amy Jump, the Seventies crime thriller wastes little time on backstory, context or exposition. None, really.

You gather that two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) wait in a warehouse parking lot with their liaison (Brie Larson) to a gun runner. They’re always waiting for their own henchmen, as well as the gunrunner’s liaison (Armie Hammer).

I love Ben Wheatley. In 2011, he and Jump brought forth the utterly brilliant horror show Kill List, and I have waited breathlessly for every collaboration since. Free Fire included.

And while each of Wheatley’s films is decidedly different from each other, Free Fire is very different from most films altogether.

Imagine if the entire 93 minutes of Reservoir Dogs took place in that last act shootout among the pack.

The noteworthy fact about Free Fire is not that it has a ballsy first act, but that the entire film is a third act. With scarcely a word of context, we’re rolled into an empty warehouse just in time for a shootout to begin, and there we will stay until the film concludes.

It’s pretty brilliant, really. Character development happens under fire. Hammer’s “Ord” (yep, that’s his name) brings a lot of laid back comedy. Brie Larson is characteristically spot on, as is the always welcome Cillian Murphy. The two infuse characters and the proceedings with some authentic humanity.

Also working the comedy angle is Sharlto Copley – always reliable for some scenery-chewing, here working those mandibles as a South African imbecile/arms dealer once misdiagnosed as a child genius.

Jump and Wheatley rob the gang meeting of any of the slick romance or brutal gravitas usually bestowed on such events by cinema. There is a barely controlled, very funny, incredibly bloody chaos afoot here, and it is a wild and entertaining sight to behold.


The Rising

The Birth of a Nation

by George Wolf

Two years ago, Selma delivered a graceful reminder of one man’s courageous commitment to a civil rights movement rooted in non-violence.

Now, The Birth of a Nation recreates a primal scream of outrage from one man driven to a violent uprising against the inhumanity of slavery. It is a passionate, often gut-wrenching film that stands as a stellar achievement from director/producer/co-writer/star Nate Parker.

Parker pours his soul into this film, both behind the camera and in front, delivering a searing performance as Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who organized a bloody rebellion in 1831. Parker’s film is blunt and visceral, displaying a strong sense of visual style and narrative instinct.

Reportedly kicking in over one hundred grand of his own to ensure more creative control, Parker’s use of poetic license is understandable even when it is questionable. Here, Turner’s motives for turning from an obedience-teaching plantation preacher to a vengeful killer are rooted in retaliation for brutal rapes rather than a spiritual calling. This doesn’t help the definition of the film’s female characters (a criticism smartly addressed by co-star Gabrielle Union in recent interviews) but it does allow Parker space for a more dimensional religious undercurrent.

He shows us how faith can be both a source of comfort and an instrument of oppression. Samuel Turner (a terrific Armie Hammer) finds fellow plantation owners will pay handsomely for his “preacher” to come help them quiet unruly slaves. After multiple trips to preach salvation through obedience, Nat Turner decries that for every Bible passage the slaveholders cite to support their actions, he can find another “damning them to Hell.”

Parker’s debut as a director, while often short on nuance, is remarkably assured, displaying a sharp eye for framing, a nicely controlled pace and a confidence in the effect of his visuals. Using Nina Simone’s haunting version of “Strange Fruit” could have been jarringly anachronistic, but Parker lays it over a montage so striking the combination proves undeniably powerful.

The story of Nat Tuner’s rebellion absolutely deserves a big screen treatment like this, and Parker presents a brilliant irony right up front. The title rebuts one of the most notoriously racist films in history while it serves as a stark reminder that much of this country was built with slave labor. The Birth of a Nation is a truly raw and moving experience that finds humanity in the horrors of history.

Shouldn’t it be even more than that?

As unarmed black men continue to die at the hands of law enforcement, as non-violent protests are labeled anti-American and as overt racism stains a Presidential campaign, shouldn’t this film embrace its chance to be the generational bellwether we need right now?

Those are grandiose and mainly unfair expectations, as it’s not Parker’s responsibility to give us something to post about on social media to prove our “woke”-ness. This is an important film, due less to the climate in which it arrives than to the fact that it heralds an important new creative voice, and moves us one step closer to the day when this diversity in cinema is more commonplace.



Depp and Hammer at Home on the Range

The Lone Ranger

by Hope Madden

Back in 1995, I watched Johnny Depp in a Western of sorts that paired a supposedly dead white man with an outcast Indian on a journey through the wild west. There were trains and bad men. Iggy Pop co-starred. I’m not sure what else a person could want in a film.

This was Jim Jarmusch’s wondrous Dead Man, and I was reminded of the film repeatedly as I watched its super-mainstream Disney counterpart The Lone Ranger. In case you’ve missed the typhoon of advertising, Depp plays Tonto to Armie Hammer’s masked do-gooder.

Iggy Pop is nowhere to be seen. Pity.

The  handsome pair (although one is caked in mud the entire running time – if it’s not giant teeth or Eddie Munster make up it’s mud with this one) are flung together quite against either’s will, but a shared desire to bring down Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) binds them.

This is the Lone Ranger’s origin story, told mostly for laughs, but director Gore Verbinski and his team of writers hope to stir a bit of historical context into the mix.

If you’re going to resurrect the culturally insensitive figure of Tonto for a modern film, it’ll be important to address the racism of the time head on. But, if you’re bringing the Lone Ranger back to life, clip-clopping action and fun are requirements. How to balance?

Well, for the fun and excitement, Verbinski reteams with the writers of his other Depp adventures, the Pirates of the Carribbean franchise (Ted Elliott and Terry Rosio). Indeed, The Lone Ranger has far too much in common with Verbinski’s Pirates series – down to one sparsely blond outlaw sporting a parasol.

For the serious underpinnings of genocide –  a tough topic for a family adventure film – Verbinski nabbed Justin Haythe, who’s penned two pretentious dramas (The Clearing, Revolutionary Road) and a Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson film (Snitch).

The socio-political context is mishandled, is what I’m saying, and the drama feels wildly out of place in a film that puts a hat-wearing horse on a tree limb.

The tonal mishmash hampers everything about the film. In fact, though he tried for a full 2 ½ hours (good lord, Verbinski, give it a break!), the director simply cannot find an acceptable tone. Depp and Hammer generate an immediately likeable odd couple chemistry, buoyed immeasurably by Fichtner’s gleefully unseemly bad guy, but the movie remains a slapped together mess.

Plus, no Iggy Pop.